By Matthew Hutson, published on July 3, 2012 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
Chances are, at some point in your life, you've felt someone staring at you. Maybe you were at the grocery store. Maybe walking along the sidewalk. Maybe sitting on a bus. And sure enough, when you turned your head to look, the suspect's eyes met yours.
You just had an anomalous experience.
The job of the conscious mind is to form a story out of all our sensations and reflections. Life as we experience it is not just a series of unconnected thoughts and events; it's a coherent narrative unfolding in an orderly universe. But sometimes we have experiences that don't fit our expectations and may even contradict what science has taught us is possible. In our attempts to accommodate such outlier phenomena, we often turn to unproven forces or entities. We start to believe in the paranormal.
Anomalous experience of this sort ranges from sensing a strange vibe in a room to feeling outside your own body. We often explain such experiences using concepts related to spirits, luck, witchcraft, psychic powers, life energy, or more terrestrial (and extraterrestrial) entities. Such explanations are often more appealing, or at least more intuitive, than blaming an odd experience on a trick of the mind.
One of the most common anomalous experiences is the sense of being stared at. When you see someone gazing directly at you, emotions become activated—it can be exciting or comforting or creepy—and this visceral charge can give the impression that gazes transfer energy. Further, if you feel uncomfortable and check to see whether someone is looking at you, your movement may draw attention—confirming your suspicions.
Another common experience is déjà vu, a phenomenon two in three people report. Most of us shrug it off as a mental hiccup. Indeed, researchers propose it's a sense of familiarity without a recollection of why something is familiar, or perhaps a timing issue in the brain where thoughts are experienced twice because of a slight wiring delay, lending the second occurrence an odd sensation of repetition. But some people believe it's a glimpse into a past life.
While anomalous experiences may be associated with stressful circumstances, personal pathologies, or cognitive deficits, the experiences themselves may not always be so bad, and may actually be healthy inventions. They're just our attempts to make sense of a weird situation. After all, there's nothing the mind likes better than a good story.
Alex and Donna Voutsinas were leafing through family photo albums a week before their wedding in 2002 when one picture caught Alex's eye. In the foreground was Donna, five years old, posing at Disney World with one of the Seven Dwarves. Behind them was Alex's father pushing a stroller. And in the stroller was Alex. The boy's family was visiting from Canada, and the two children would not meet until 15 years later. When he saw the photo, Alex said, "I got chills. It was just too much of a coincidence. It was fate."
Nearly anyone would get chills in such a situation, but it takes a lot less—hearing the same new word twice in an hour, meeting someone who shares our birthday—to make us pause and say, "Well, how about that!" Such moments occur when we spot patterns, an ability (and compulsion) built into the brain from the earliest stages of perception. Pattern-finding lets us make sense of sensory input (those four legs are part of a table) and to predict regularities in our environment (apples fall down, not up; they're often tasty; and throwing them makes people mad).
Pattern-finding is so central to survival and success that we see patterns everywhere, even in random data—a phenomenon called apophenia. We spot faces in clouds and hear messages in records played backward. And while we expect some level of order in the world, on occasion our pattern-spotting gets away from us and makes a connection we wouldn't expect. When that happens, we demand, at least subconsciously, an explanation.
It turns out that our favorite kinds of explanations involve "agents"—beings capable of intentional action. The agent could be a person, a god, or a superintelligent robot. We're biased to blame even simple events on agents—spotting them or their footprints allows us to manage them if they are dangerous: It is better to mistake a twig for a snake than to mistake a snake for a twig.
Unconscious pattern recognition underlies a variety of automatic processes, including those we associate with accurate intuitions or a sixth sense (see II Psychic Abilities on page 2). Sensing danger in a combat zone or suddenly "knowing" that a partner is cheating or a friend is pregnant are instances in which we've pieced a pattern together wholly unconsciously. The suddenness with which it bursts into our consciousness can feel as if the hunch is born of clairvoyance.
Some people are too good at spotting patterns. In the run-up to his killing of John Lennon, Mark David Chapman noted all kinds of coincidences and saw them as signs to proceed. He once drew 50 connections between Holden Caulfield's time in New York City in The Catcher in the Rye and his own life there prior to the murder. He may have been suffering from schizophrenia, a disease characterized by overactive dopamine transmission. This neurotransmitter helps us find meaningful connections between things. But the same excessive pattern-finding that sends some people off the rails can lead others to be creative, as insight requires yoking distantly related ideas.
One way to interpret apparent order is to invoke a sign from "above." (Or bullying from above: A man whose house has received six meteorite strikes told a reporter, "I am obviously being targeted by extraterrestrials.") Other patterns lend themselves to conspiracy theories. (There's a significant correlation between belief in the paranormal and in conspiracies.)
A key trait that predicts a belief in conspiracy theories is paranoia. When paranoid, you're always on the lookout for agents (including secret agents) working against you. A bit of anxiety is good—it keeps you on your toes—but with high doses you could find yourself living in a cabin in the woods. A personality trait called "openness to experience" also enables paranoid beliefs, as curiosity and imagination invite new ideas, including those that are so fringe they strike others as paranoid. People who are distrustful and hostile are also likely to be suspicious of authority. And those with an external locus of control, who downplay their own influence on their lives, tend to blame things on other parties, including fate or secret cabals.
Another trait that may be responsible for beliefs in conspiracies, fate, and a sixth sense is the tendency to trust your hunches. In one study, intuitive subjects showed more referential thinking, which is the belief that people are talking about you or that everyday events like traffic light changes are meant specially for you.
Faith in intuition has been linked to other types of magical thinking, too. When intuitive, "gut-trusting" thinkers watched videos of alleged paranormal activity—UFOs and ghosts—they were more likely than other subjects to say they'd react emotionally if they were to witness the activity themselves. Our guts, apparently, really want to believe.
Aberfan is a town in Wales that few people, even in the U.K., had heard of before 1966. Then disaster struck, haunting people's dreams—including, apparently, dreams preceding the accident.
A mountain of material from a coal mine had become soaked from heavy rains, and on the morning of October 21, a landslide swept into town, hitting a school and several houses. Twenty-eight adults and 116 children died. A psychiatrist named J.C. Barker put out a call for people who'd had premonitions of the event. He received dozens of letters in which people described dreams of avalanches, children, and the name Aberfan. Most strikingly, the parents of one girl who'd died in the accident said that she'd reported a dream just the day before her death: "I dreamt I went to school and there was no school there," she'd said. "Something black had come down all over it!"
According to a Gallup poll, two in three Americans believe in or aren't sure about ESP, a category of phenomena that includes precognition, remote viewing, and mental telepathy.
Scientists can't explain away every particular instance of presumed ESP, but they've identified broad psychological forces at play. One is our selective attention. You probably think about your friends a lot, and they probably call you a lot, but when those thoughts and calls overlap we note a coincidence, ignoring all the times they don't overlap.
We also have unreliable memory. Just imagining a past experience can create the false impression that it really happened, so memories of "precognitive" dreams can be twisted to fit the event they were supposedly precognizant of. And then there is our egocentrism. Research shows that we find coincidences involving ourselves much more surprising than identical coincidences involving others, because we feel we're somehow special. (Yes, I know, you really are special.)
Another phenomenon that relies on coincidence is the sense of psychokinesis (PK), or mind over matter. Brisk sales of the book The Secret, with its "law of attraction," whereby picturing an outcome attracts it to you, demonstrates our hunger for and credence in PK. Rhonda Byrne, The Secret's author, reports that she cured her eyesight and lost weight just through wishful thinking. One set of studies by the psychologist Emily Pronin and colleagues revealed a bias to believe in mental causation even among Ivy League students. They were convinced that they'd caused another student's headache by sticking pins in a voodoo doll and that they'd influenced the outcome of the Super Bowl just by watching it on TV and focusing on the plays.
Pronin argues that apparent mental causation relies on the same rules of thumb we use to assess causation anywhere. Typically, if event A happens before event B, if there are no other obvious causes of B, and if A and B are conceptually similar, A appears to have caused B. This line of thinking applies automatically, even if event A is merely a thought.
As with most forms of paranormal belief, people who do not feel in control of their lives are more likely to believe in precognition, perhaps because to accept premonitions is to think that the future is already laid out for you, without your input.
Peter Brugger, the head of neuropsychology at University Hospital Zurich, has found that the people most likely to believe in and experience mind over matter and precognition are pattern-spotters. They're more likely to see briefly-flashed strings of letters as words and jumbled images as faces, and they're faster to come up with a word that forms a conceptual bridge between two other words. The experience of ESP or psychokinesis first requires seeing a connection between a thought and an event.
People high in sensation-seeking— those who search for novelty and exciting stimuli—also report more paranormal beliefs and experiences. Perhaps they're drawn to the idea of a world inhabited by mysterious forces. So, being a pattern-finding sensation-seeker means you're more likely to experience odd coincidences in the first place, and then more likely to entertain unconventional explanations for them. A one-two punch.
On February 1, 2000, Pam Barrett was the leader of Alberta's New Democratic Party when she went to see her dentist. She asked to have veneers installed but would undergo a much deeper transformation in the bargain.
Barrett had a severe allergic reaction to the anesthetic. Her throat closed up and she couldn't breathe. She sat upright and told her dentist she was going to die, then had a near-death experience (NDE) during which she felt that she had left her body and was looking down on it from above. The dentist gave her CPR until an ambulance came. At the hospital, she had the experience again. As she "returned," she felt God punching her in the chest and telling her to get on a new path. The next day Barrett held a press conference and retired from politics.
Between 6 and 12 percent of cardiac arrest patients report having an NDE, but such perceptions can also result from trauma, fear, or drugs, or have no apparent cause. Proposed explanatory brain mechanisms include too much or too little oxygen, too much carbon dioxide, and the blocking of glutamate receptors. Descriptions of such glimpses go back thousands of years, and they share common themes across cultures. Typically you hear a buzzing or ringing as you move through a dark tunnel. You can see your own body. You meet the spirits of loved ones. You have flashbacks of your life and feel joy but eventually turn away from the light and return to Earth.
Many people take NDEs to be evidence of life after death, but the British psychologist Susan Blackmore and others have attempted to explain each of the elements physiologically. The tunnel and the light might result from lack of oxygen in the visual cortex. Abnormal activity in the temporal lobes can cause flashbacks. A sense of pleasure results from endorphin release. After being resuscitated, people sometimes claim to have witnessed the events happening around them while they were clinically dead, but these accounts could result from informed guesswork or false memories.
Out-of-body experiences (OBEs) can occur independently of NDEs, and somewhere between 5 and 20 percent of healthy people have one at some point. Most researchers believe OBEs occur when we can't integrate all of the input regarding our location in space—vision, touch, balance, and sense of body position. Damage to or electrical stimulation of the temporoparietal junction, an area in the brain that brings these senses together, often leads to OBEs.
Recently Jason Braithwaite at the University of Birmingham has shown that people who experience OBEs (and if you have one, you're likely to have more than one) have greater cortical hyperexcitability, which means waves of activity in the brain are easily triggered. Such activity can distort sensory perception.
The neurologist Kevin Nelson argues that NDEs and OBEs might result from abnormalities in the arousal system, which regulates our states of consciousness. He has shown that people who have such anomalous experiences also report having more REM intrusion—those half-dreaming states we sometimes enter while falling asleep or waking up.
Willoughby Britton of Brown University has shown that experiencers do not show worse coping abilities. "There is a tendency to pathologize unusual or religious experiences," Britton says. "It's easy to jump to the unfounded conclusion that 'their brains are messed up; they must be crazy.' But the more positive coping styles of these experiencers indicate that they are very psychologically healthy."
Pam Barrett would argue that her experience even increased her mental health. Afterward, she told a conference, "I learned to stop judging and to start doing what's right in life."
In March 1994, Stephen Young went on trial in England for the gruesome murder of Harry and Nicola Fuller. The jury returned a verdict of guilty on the second day of deliberation, but not before consulting the ghost of Harry.
The night of the first day of deliberation, four of the jurors set up a makeshift game of Ouija in their hotel. Fuller soon joined the party, telling the four that Stephen Young had killed him and that they should vote guilty. "I was crying by this time, and the other ladies were upset as well," one juror later said. They ended the game and reported their findings to the other jurors the next morning. When the judge eventually learned of the séance he ordered a retrial. Young was once again convicted, this time using evidence only from living witnesses.
According to Gallup, 32 percent of Americans claim that spirits of the dead can return, and 37 percent believe in haunted houses. Another 16 percent aren't sure. Most paranormal encounters don't make particularly gripping ghost stories. They consist of seeing something out of the corner of an eye or hearing an odd sound late at night, perceptions that can usually be blamed on drafts, tricks of the light, or family pets. Further, once you have it in your head that you might see or hear something, your brain is often happy to oblige by presenting a hallucination, especially when you're tired or scared.
Perhaps the most compelling evidence of a visitation is what's called a sense of presence—the feeling that an agent is with you, typically less than a few feet away. Such a sense has been explained as a form of out-of-body experience in which your body image is doubled. Researchers have also proposed that we have an evolved system for sensing the presence of others—after all, you're often aware that someone is near you even without consciously recognizing the signals you're picking up on. (Close your eyes while sitting next to someone to experience this effect.) Perhaps we can have hallucinations of this sense.
A feeling of presence often arises in extreme environments and situations, such as when one is cold or isolated or at high altitude, or when one is suffering from exhaustion, fear, hunger, or monotony. Mountaineers often report such hallucinations. Sir Ernest Shackleton wrote that during one 36-hour Antarctica march, "It seemed to me often that we were four, not three," and his companions had the same "curious feeling." Fear and loneliness have both been shown to amplify our detection of agents in our environment; they put us on high alert for intruders or companions in our midst.
Bereavement enhances the chances of a visitor. When loved ones do stop by, it's usually in the first year after their deaths. Survivors might see or hear something or, more commonly, just have a feeling of closeness. Or, more rarely, extreme closeness: In the 1970s, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the psychiatrist made famous by her five stages of grief model, set up a spiritual retreat near San Diego. During séances there, a self-proclaimed psychic named Jay Barham would turn off the lights and pretend to be various spirits so he could have sex with their widows. One victim said later, "I needed to believe."
Neurotic or extraverted individuals are most susceptible to perceived contact. Neurosis can intensify elements of grief, such as anxiety, whereas extraverts might feel a greater need to connect because of the emphasis they place on social interaction. Those with epilepsy also have more contact experiences because hyperexcitability in the temporal lobes can generate a sense of presence. Scientists have been able to induce sensed presences by placing magnets over subjects' temporal lobes, leading some to propose that the Earth's magnetic fields might be enough to make certain locations feel haunted.
The fact that people sense presences most often when experiencing grief suggests that contact with spirits may be more than a twisted hallucination; it may be a healthy form of coping.
Matthew Hutson is the author of The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking, published in April 2012 by Hudson Street Press.
What defines people who believe in anomalous experiences?
Believers are not all alike, but several factors have been correlated with paranormal beliefs and experiences in general. One is the trait of absorption: Those who get lost in fiction and their own fantasies may treat their imaginations as especially real. Another trait is low behavioral inhibition: If you're impulsive, you're less prone to check your initial interpretations of events against reality. And susceptibility to false memories allows you to twist experiences to fit a paranormal narrative.
Childhood trauma and a history of negative life events can also increase belief in the paranormal. The psychologist Harvey Irwin has suggested that early experiences with diminished control lead to the need for a sense of mastery; paranormal belief becomes a way to make sense of anomalous events. Indeed, the desire for control is a strong predictor of pattern-finding. Jennifer Whitson and Adam Galinsky showed that when healthy subjects feel a lack of control, they're more likely to see images in snowy visual noise, to rely on superstitious rituals, and to explain coincidences as conspiracies.
On the other hand, "there is a weak but consistent correlation between paranormal beliefs and various measures of psychological maladjustment, whether you're looking at a tendency toward depression or mania or schizotypy," says Chris French, the head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths, University of London. While some conclude that if you believe in ESP or ghosts you're crazy, "that's far too naive and simplistic," French says. "There are situations where having these beliefs can be psychologically advantageous"—as a form of coping, for example. "It's a very complex picture."
Paranormal believers also exhibit many traits one might consider positive (within reason): They're more intuitive, open to experience, and sensation-seeking. English psychologist Susan Blackmore, who went from believer to skeptic, has seen both sides of the spectrum. She says she's the only person ever to have been on the executive council of both the Society for Psychical Research and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. "I can tell you," she quips, "that the believers' conferences have much better parties."